Only sustainable food systems can eliminate hunger

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Photo of women collecting water from a well in Ivory Coast

Farm women water their vegetables in Ivory Coast (© IFAD).

A war with various consequences

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has dramatic consequences for the Ukrainian people. But the effects are also being felt on a global scale. The energy crisis has probably had the most coverage in our country, but a food crisis is also manifesting and a growing number of people are going hungry. It is particularly affecting vulnerable families in the south.

After all, Russia and Ukraine are among the world's top seven exporters of wheat, corn, barley, sunflower seed and sunflower oil. In addition, Russia and its ally Belarus account for one-fifth of the global supply of fertiliser. Finally, Russia is one of the world's largest suppliers of fossil fuels. The country accounts for 25% of total natural gas exports and is the 2nd largest exporter of crude oil after Saudi Arabia.

Supply problems affecting these foodstuffs, fertilisers and fossil fuels are leading to scarcity and rising prices in the world market. More expensive fertilisers and fossil fuels mean it costs more to produce, transport and process local food. As a result, farmers see their incomes drop and the purchasing power of people who need to buy their food also reduces.

A food crisis with many causes

It is too short-sighted however to blame the current food crisis solely on the war in Ukraine. As the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) food security report shows, the number of undernourished people in the world was on the rise before this began (see box).

First, we had to deal with the severe economic consequences of the COVID pandemic and the measures taken to contain it. Farmers could not access their fields and supply chains were interrupted. The climate crisis is also increasing in significance. Extreme heat, drought and floods limit food production. The Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya), for example, is suffering from the worst drought in 40 years, after 4 consecutive years of limited rainfall.

Food insecurity is also a consequence of inequality. Most farmers in the world - and certainly in the south - are involved in small-scale, family farming. They also produce the most food. In Central and West Africa, 60-70% of the population earns a living from farming.

Compared to large-scale agriculture, these small-scale farmers find it much more difficult to access agricultural inputs, markets and price information, credit, improved technologies, information and social protection. They also often struggle to compete with the overly cheap prices of imported frozen chicken, wheat and milk powder from rich countries. Hence, world hunger mostly affects small farmers.

The FAO report sets it out in clear terms: much of the $630 billion in aid spent on food production worldwide between 2013 and 2018 barely reaches small farmers. On the contrary, it distorts market forces, harms the environment and does not encourage the production of nutritious and healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. This is because the subsidies are mainly focused on dairy, meat and cash crops such as rice and sugar, often in the form of monocultures based on fertilisers and pesticides, especially in the richer countries.

Conflict also plays a major role in food insecurity. Thus, about 139 million people faced with severe food insecurity live in countries or areas ravaged by conflict and insecurity. The war in Ukraine could leave another 47 million people facing acute hunger.

Russia's attack on Ukraine certainly exacerbated the food crisis, but it was not the cause of it. Nor does the war have the same impact everywhere. It will have a far greater impact in regions like North Africa, where a great deal of wheat is consumed and imported. Sub-Saharan countries are more reliant on their own millet, sorghum, cassava and bananas, making them less dependent on imported wheat.

Countries that rely heavily on large-scale and conventional agriculture will be more disadvantaged by expensive fertilisers. More generally, rising energy and food prices are affecting a large proportion of vulnerable populations worldwide. As their purchasing power decreases, they economise on healthy food.

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Photo of a man and a woman in Benin. The woman carries a basket of pineapples

Pineapple cultivation in Benin is quite dependent on imported, currently expensive fertilisers. That is why Enabel is also betting on organic production and agro-ecological principles there (© Enabel).

Sustainable food systems: agroecological principles

The impact of the war in Ukraine on food security has reaffirmed the urgent need for a transformation of our food systems. We need to make the food system more resilient to external shocks, whether linked to pandemics, conflict or climate disruption.

Hence, the Belgian Development Cooperation - which includes funded NGOs - wants to focus on the transition to sustainable food systems. The food system can be approached holistically thanks to agroecological principles.

The Belgian development agency Enabel is already working with these agroecological principles, among other places, in Katanga (DR Congo). On the originally impoverished and acidic soils, corn is planted along with a legume that adds nitrogen to the soil and prevents weeds. The soil is also covered with leaves, which adds humus and improves soil texture. Every now and then green manure is grown for a year, instead of corn, along with legumes to make the soil more fertile.

An agroecological approach seeks to minimise external inputs as much as possible by means of recycling agricultural waste and building healthy soil, among other things. By capitalising on greater biodiversity, nature - and natural enemies - can be used to combat pests and diseases.

That alone leads to greater shock resistance. The agroecological farmer is much less reliant on fertilisers and pesticides, and it is precisely these inputs that have become much more expensive due to the war in Ukraine. He will also have much more diversity in his crops so the failure of one crop or a temporarily low market price will affect him much less.

In addition, the agroecological approach seeks to minimise environmental damage as much as possible by avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilisers, encouraging biodiversity and similar. Also, by planting trees and shrubs and storing carbon in the soil, this approach is more climate-friendly.

Agroecology also prioritises humane and social values such as inclusion, equality and dignity and often uses a short chain that connects producers and consumers. Not only does this enable fairer prices, but it also has a positive impact on the environment by requiring less - now expensive - transportation.

The difference from a more monoculture-oriented, conventional approach is clear. For example, pineapple producers in Benin rely quite heavily on imported, currently expensive fertilisers such as urea and potassium phosphate. So Enabel, which supports the pineapple chain, is encouraging organic production and agroecological principles in this area, among other things. It has also, for example, investigated how to utilise the residual waste from pineapples. One company uses the waste to grow mushrooms while another turns it into organic compost or uses it to produce biscuits.

The most vulnerable in the least developed countries

With these agroecological principles, the Belgian Development Cooperation is building truly sustainable food systems. In addition to environmental health and economic vitality, human health and equality are also central to this approach.  

Can the products be stored, processed and transported? After all, a huge amount of food goes to waste due to a lack of preservation or processing methods. Can as much renewable energy be used as possible? Do people have access to healthy, affordable food without subordinating local food habits? All of these questions are addressed in a holistic view.

Belgium particularly focuses on the most vulnerable - youngsters, women and small-scale farmers - in the least developed countries. A holistic, agroecological approach lends itself perfectly to helping these groups. In addition, our country has a strong commitment to social protection, including through the International Labour Organization (ILO).

We also focus on policy and research. In 2022, for example, the CGIAR - a group of international institutions researching sustainable food systems - received 6 million euros. Here, new scientific insights are combined with the traditional knowledge of farmers.

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Photo of Minister Kitir visiting a dairy in Niger

A recent mission of Development Minister Kitir (pictured front) to Niger was all about food security. Among other things, she inaugurated a dairy factory in Gaya. This should boost the local dairy market and curb the import of dairy products (© FPS Foreign Affairs).

A multilateral approach is indispensable

With its emphasis on sustainable food systems, Belgium is perfectly aligned with the international agenda. Consider the Farm-to-Fork strategy that is part of the European Green Deal, for example. Or the UN summit on sustainable food systems that took place in 2021.

In addition, Belgium fully supports a strong, effective and inclusive multilateral approach with the United Nations (UN) at its core. After all, the food crisis is co-created by international trade and pricing. Moreover, the various initiatives around the world need to be well coordinated.

In this regard, Belgium supports organisations such as UN Secretary-General Guterres' Global Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance, which aims to address the impact of the current crisis on vulnerable people. We also support the Roadmap for Global Food Security - Call to Action. In addition, our country supports the European Union's (EU) response to global food insecurity.

In the context of the war in Ukraine, Belgium supported the mediation efforts, led by the UN Secretary-General, which resulted in the so-called 'Black Sea Grain Initiative'. This allowed blocked ships carrying grain destined for international markets to be released. The initiative also enables the export of Russian food products and fertilisers to international markets.

Russia is doing its best, even at the UN, to shift blame for the food crisis to the EU and countries that have imposed sanctions on the country. But the European sanctions very explicitly do not apply to export of Russian food and fertilisers to third countries.

Humanitarian aid alleviates short-term needs

Belgium is certainly not losing sight of short-term needs. Our country traditionally deploys its humanitarian aid to alleviate hunger and malnutrition. In 2022, 5 million euros flowed to the World Food Program (WFP), the UN specialist in food aid. In addition, 2 funds also received €5 million: the Immediate Response Account (IRA), managed by WFP, and the Special Fund for Emergency and Rehabilitation (SFERA), managed by FAO.

This year, Belgium is spending more than 60% of its humanitarian aid through flexible funds and funding from general budgets. This allows humanitarian organisations to deploy the money efficiently in the places with the most urgent needs.

For direct funding of humanitarian programs, the focus is on the Sahel, the Great Lakes (Central Africa), Syria and Palestine, in addition to the forgotten crises in Yemen and Afghanistan. In 2022, Ukraine was added to the list.

In 2021, the Belgian Development Cooperation spent 142 million euros on agriculture and food security. That amount also included 41 million euros in humanitarian aid (emergency food aid) and 5 million euros in food aid.

Hunger and malnutrition in the world are a result of a complex tangle of issues. On top of that come conflict and climate disruption. Only a holistic view can relieve the situation, and that is what Belgium is focussing on. Only then can we live up to the theme of World Food Day 2022 (16 October), i.e. better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life.

Hunger and malnutrition in figures (2021)

  • An estimated 828 million people suffer from hunger (= 9.8% of the world's population). That's 150 million more than in 2019, just before the COVID pandemic outbreak. Hunger here is synonymous with chronic malnutrition: an uncomfortable and painful feeling caused by a diet that provides insufficient energy (calories).
  • About 2.3 billion people (29.3% of the world's population, nearly 1 in 3) face moderate or severe food insecurity. Of these, 924 million (11.7%) are facing severe food insecurity, 207 million more than just before the COVID pandemic. More than a third live in Africa. Severe food insecurity refers to people who, at certain times of the year, have insufficient food, experience hunger or even go one or more days without food.
  • Nearly 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet, 112 million more than in 2019. This is clearly a consequence of rising food prices due to the COVID pandemic and measures to curb it.
  • It is likely that 670 million people (8%) will still be hungry in 2030. The same number as in 2015 when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were initiated. More than a little effort will be needed to completely eradicate food insecurity.

These figures date from 2021 and do not yet take into account the effects of the war in Ukraine.

Source: The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022